Hearing and Seeing

A Short Story by Edward Picot

There was an unforseen development in the Animal Experimentation Lab, where a scientist called Dr Gribbon was working with monkeys and chimpanzees, trying out various pharmaceutical preparations in the hope of discovering a penis enlargement drug.

One of the chimps began to scratch compulsively at the middle of its forehead, which soon developed a raised pink lesion about an inch in diameter. In the course of a couple of days the lesion pushed outwards, ruptured, acquired a central hole, an outer rim, and a ridged appearance. It was a third ear. Dr Gribbon was so struck by the strangeness of this growth - and perturbed by it, despite the fact that he was used to seeing bizarre and repulsive sights - that the middle of his own forehead began to itch in sympathy. He also got the strange impression that the chimpanzee was looking at him with more than usual attention, almost as if it were listening to him, although he wasn't saying anything.

The itching sensation in the middle of his forehead persisted. It woke him early the next morning. When he inspected himself in the mirror, he found a red lesion developing, which looked exactly the same as the one on the chimpanzee. He made an emergency appointment to see a private dermatologist.

The dermatologist was understandably baffled, so Dr Gribbon described the third ear which had developed on the chimpanzee. At this the dermatologist shook his head. "It seems impossible," he said, "but who's to say what's possible and what's not these days, the way you chaps keep tampering with nature? If the condition develops in the way you describe, then I think our only option will be surgery. In the meantime, I should keep it covered with a dressing."

While the dermatologist was talking, Dr Gribbon became aware of another voice in the background. It sounded exactly like the dermatologist himself, but muffled, as if his twin brother were speaking in the next room. It was impossible to make out the words. But when the dermatologist stopped, this second voice continued without interruption, rambling on and on, unintelligible.

Dr Gribbon left the consulting room and went to pay his private fee to the secretary. As he approached her he became aware of a new voice, muffled again, but female this time; and when the secretary spoke, it became apparent that this new voice was hers. It carried on as long as he was in her presence, whether she was actually talking or not. But as with the dermatologist's second voice, it was impossible to make out what was being said.

At home that evening, he felt obliged to warn his wife about what was happening to him. He described the state of the chimpanzee in the lab, and he removed the dressing to show her his forehead. By this time it was beginning to break apart and flower.

"Oh, darling," she said, "how horrible for you. But they can operate, can't they?" Her pretty face was flooded with concern. But her second voice, babbling away in the background, sounded less concerned than impatient. He was now hearing second voices with everyone he met.

As a matter of fact his wife's second voice kept going all evening, and continued after they went to bed, even when she fell asleep, although at that point it became less of a monotone. At one moment it would be mumbling, at another almost shouting, and now and again it fell silent. Eventually the silences became more prolonged, and he was able to fall asleep himself.

Early the next morning he woke and found that he was hearing his wife's second voice clearly: "...Oh Charles, remember I'm a married woman, we have to think about protection, all right then but just quickly, my goodness you're covered in sweat, ooh that feels nice..."

He got up and went to the bathroom to inspect himself in the mirror. Sure enough, the third ear was now complete in the middle of his forehead. When he re-entered the bedroom his wife was awake.

"Oh darling!" she cried. "The ear! Oh how horrible for you!"

But her second voice said: "God! How repulsive. I've never liked him working in that lab. Well, that's it. As soon as he's out of the house I'll give Charles a call. I'll tell him to come and fetch me."

"Who's this Charles?" he demanded.

Her face froze. "Charles?" she said, trying to sound casual. "What Charles?"

"I don't know what Charles, darling, but you're obviously having an affair with him."

"Where on earth have you picked this up from?" she said with a forced laugh. But her second voice was saying: "Oh botheration! How can he have found out? After all the care I've taken! He must be bluffing. He can't know anything really. Perhaps I said the name in my sleep. I was having that dream just before I woke..."

"Yes, darling, it was partly the dream," said Dr Gribbon. "But I can hear what you're thinking. It seems to be a property of this third ear."

Later that day, having cleared his wife out of the house, he went to see Sir John Sterling, the Managing Director of Glaxton Dohme & Bienvenue Pharmaceuticals, where he worked. The secretary tried to tell him that Sir John was unavailable all day, but he could hear her second voice - slightly muffled, because he was wearing his dressing - saying that there was an empty spot in the diary at three in the afternoon, so he told her to book him into that. When she remained unwilling, he took a gamble.

"I think you'd better book me in," he said, "if you don't want me to tell Sir John about your guilty secret."

He had no idea, when he spoke, whether she really had a guilty secret or not: but her second voice immediately began to blurt out the information he needed. "What does he mean? I've never even met him before, have I? Is he some kind of private detective or something? What's he found out? Oh, I knew this was going to happen. Does he know about the office party or the petty cash?"

"I know about the petty cash, and I know about the office party too," he assured her. "So just book me that appointment, will you?"

She booked it.

There were several hours to go until three o'clock, so he went back down to his lab to check on the progress of his special chimpanzee. Previously he had only identified it by a serial number, like all the other animals in his lab, but now he decided to give it a name. He would call it Little Pitchers.

He found Little Pitchers sitting against the back of his cage looking moody, with both hands pressed to the front of his forehead. "What's the matter, Little Pitchers?" he said. "Getting fed up with your superpower?"

He could hear what Little Pitchers was thinking, of course, but it was all in chimpanzee, so he couldn't interpret it. It sounded rather gloomy, though.

He pulled a stool next to the bars of the cage. "I know how you feel, actually," he confessed. "Hearing what other people think isn't much fun, once the novelty's worn off. For one thing they never seem to think anything complimentary about oneself. And for another thing, it's all so petty. Endless complaints about minor problems, and infantile daydreaming about sex and money. I've yet to come across anything profound."

Little Pitchers looked at him with world-weary eyes.

"It makes a nice change to come down here," said Dr Gribbon, "and get away from it all."

The lab sounded the same as it normally did, only much more so, because all the animals were chattering with two voices instead of one, and the second voices never let up.

"This is what attracted me to lab work in the first place," said Dr Gribbon. "The chance to get away from human beings. Although it may seem odd to claim that I find solace in the company of animals, when I spend my life injecting them and cutting them up. What do you think, Little Pitchers?"

Little Pitchers took his hands away from his forehead.

"Oh dear," said Dr Gribbon. "This is an unwelcome development."

The third ear in the middle of Little Pitchers' forehead had turned black, and it seemed to be crumbling. A chunk was missing from the rim.

"Well," said Dr Gribbon, "I shall just have to get the money up front, that's all."

At three in the afternoon he stepped into Sir John Sterling's office.

"What are you doing here?" demanded Sir John. "I'm not expecting anybody, am I? Do I know you?"

"Who is this bloke anyway?" said his second voice. "What's that dressing on his forehead? Perhaps I should call Security."

"I'm Dr Gribbon," explained his visitor. "One of the penis enlargement team."

"Penis enlargement," thought Sir John. "Not getting anywhere. Forty thousand a year, we must be paying this bloke, and we're getting bugger all back for it. Mind you, if it ever did start to work, we'd make billions."

"You're quite right, Sir John," said Dr Gribbon, removing his dressing, "the project is going nowhere. And your estimate of my wage is also accurate. And you are now wondering how I managed to guess what you were thinking, and telling yourself how repulsive this object in the middle of my forehead looks. Let me explain to you, Sir John, that this repulsive object is a third ear, which enables me to listen to other people's thoughts. Ah, I can tell that you're already starting to imagine some of the implications. My goodness, your mind certainly does work quickly when it comes to money matters. You're already recognising the potential for industrial espionage, and wondering how much money I will want in order to put this remarkable gift at your service. My price is ten million, Sir John, but I expect the money within the next twenty-four hours."

Sir John cancelled his other appointments, and called for a solicitor to draw up a contract. The eventual agreement was five million up front, with another five payable in six months, depending on results. The contract specifically stated that since the third ear was a scientific freak, and nobody knew how long it would last, Sir John accepted that an element of risk was involved, and the first five million was non-returnable in the case of accidents or failures.

Dr Gribbon returned to his lab. His forehead was throbbing with pain by this time. He thought he could already feel the third ear starting to crumble, and when he passed people in the corridor, he couldn't make out their second voices quite as clearly. He hoped that the money would be in his bank account before his loss of power became obvious.

"How are things, Little Pitchers?"

Little Pitchers no longer possessed a third ear. The floor of his cage was littered with nasty-looking fragments of black flesh. In the middle of his forehead was a swollen red patch, rather like the original lesion, but with a horizontal split across the middle. And as Dr Gribbon watched, the split opened, to reveal something dark and glistening within: brown, with a black dot in the middle, and mobile. It swivelled and focussed. It was a third eye.

"Hallo!" exclaimed Dr Gribbon softly, leaning forward. "I wonder what this does?"

Little Pitchers stared at him with all three of his eyes, and then seemed to lose interest. It wasn't that he looked away: he looked beyond. Dr Gribbon was disconcerted. He wasn't used to the lab animals staring right through him.

He went home, and inspected his third ear in the bathroom mirror. Sure enough it was black, and a lump of it came away with the dressing. "Well," he said, "I was getting tired of all those voices anyhow. So petty. Perhaps the eye will be more uplifting."

He slept little that night, partly because of the discomfort in his forehead. When he woke the next morning, and inspected himself in the mirror again, the third ear was almost gone. All that remained was a roughly-circular raised blackened scar, and in the middle of this a fresh red swelling, sore-looking, already developing a horizontal split.

He drove to work, and went straight to the lab. When he passed people in the corridors, he found that he could no longer hear their thoughts. It was a relief to him. He wondered briefly whether he was going to lose his five million pounds, but somehow the question seemed less urgent than it would have done the day before.

Little Pitchers was sitting against the back of his cage, apparently in exactly the same position as when Dr Gribbon had last seen him. He had already been fed, but the food was lying untouched in its dish. His two natural eyes were closed, but his third eye was open and staring straight ahead. There was no change in the fixity of this stare, even when Dr Gribbon came and stood directly in front. As had happened the day before, he got the feeling that Little Pitchers was staring right through him, at something beyond him, perhaps beyond the walls of the laboratory, perhaps even beyond the walls of the physical world.

Behind the dressing on his forehead, he felt his own third eye starting to split open, as if in sympathy. He staggered and clutched at the bars of the cage. A blade of agony was going through his head, as if his brain were splitting open too.

He was due to see Sir John Sterling at ten o'clock, to draw up a plan of campaign. Exactly as the clock struck ten he presented himself in the big office at the top of the building. He had taken some analgesics, but his head was still hurting.

He still hadn't made up his mind, even when he stepped through the door, whether to confess that his third ear was gone, or attempt to bluff it out.

"I'm sorry, Sir John," he said, pressing his hand involuntarily to his forehead. He stood thinking for a moment; then he said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you after all."

"What?" said Sir John, immediately turning red in the face and glaring at him angrily. "What d'you mean? I hope you're not telling me you've sold out to someone else. We made a contract, you know..."

"No, no, it isn't that. It's the third ear. I'm afraid it's gone."

Sir John jumped up from his big swivel chair. "Show me!" he demanded.

Dr Gribbon removed the dressing from his forehead, and as he did so he felt his third eye come open. He was momentarily blinded, as if he were looking straight into the sun. He felt his way to a chair and sat down. There was a long silence.

"What is it?" said Sir John eventually. "Is it some kind of eye?"

Dr Gribbon said nothing.

"What can you see?" insisted Sir John.

Again there was no reply.

Sir John cleared his throat nervously. "Well, I'm sorry, Gribbon, but contract or no contract you can kiss goodbye to that five million quid... Unless, of course, this eye is something... something even better..."

Still Dr Gribbon said nothing. With his two natural eyes he could see Sir John's large and imposing corporeal form: but with his third eye, now that he was no longer dazzled, he could see his soul. It was small and ugly, a tangle of greed and fear, and it would have been completely insignificant if it had been motionless, but it was whirling, whirling in a kind of frenzy. The Doctor thought of telling Sir John what he could see, but then he realised that it probably wouldn't help, and in any case he was already starting to look beyond. He looked beyond, and he saw that Sir John didn't really matter at all, and neither did anybody else, not even himself. He closed his natural eyes, in order to see further. He looked beyond the walls of the office. He looked beyond the boundaries of the world. He saw the little flickering thing that we call life, glimmering here and there, bravely, almost randomly; and he saw the great dance in which it plays a part, the dance of time and matter and energy, laid out like a wheel, a chrysanthemum, a mandala.

He never uttered another word. They had to carry him out of the office. He was bundled into an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Welwyn Garden City, then to a specialist unit in London. He's on a life-support system now, because he can't be persuaded to eat, and often forgets even to breathe. He's waiting to be allowed to leave this world. Little Pitchers has already preceded him.

© 1999 by Edward Picot